Government says 'one-off' support on the way but no clear timeframe as many hospitality in 'dire situation'

By Amy Williams of RNZ

Cafes and restaurants on the brink of collapse because of Covid-19 restrictions are being promised some relief by the government but still don't know what that will be.

Businesses are allowed to remain open under the red Covid-19 traffic light setting but fear of Omicron or being a close contact and spending days at home isolating is keeping people at home.

After 37 years running Tonys Restaurant in West Auckland, owner and chef Chris Sinclair doesn't want this to be his last.

But Covid-19 restrictions are still keeping many customers away.

"People are scared to go out because they don't want to end up at a location of interest and then have to isolate and lose their income."

He said group bookings are his bread and butter, and he's lost count of cancellations.

"Like a lot of businesses we're in a dire situation. There's a minimum turnover that we need to break even and we're sort of making that at the moment, so it's not the end of everything, but it certainly places a lot of pressure."

Some cafes are mothballing their kitchens to wait out the Omicron surge while other businesses across different sectors are closing for good.

Among them, the long-running Auckland gym BodyTech is closing down this week after 20 years, citing unsustainable drops in its membership and revenue since the beginning of the pandemic.

The government is soon to offer hard-hit hospitality businesses one-off targeted relief, but exactly what that will be and when is still unknown.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said it was a work in progress.

"Overall economic activity is only down two to five percent but within food and beverage it's much more significant than that so we're working through how we could provide targeted support to that sector and we will have more to say about that in the near future."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told media at this week's post-Cabinet briefing that the finance minister was constantly reviewing the situation.

"He is working on measures that are highly targeted, one-off, and short-term to address those issues where the Covid protection framework is having an impact on those businesses, and we'll have more to say on that very shortly."

For restaurateurs like Sinclair, who relied on Covid-19 wage subsidies and resurgence payments, anything from the government would be a help.

Soul Bar and Restaurant is a popular destination on Auckland's Viaduct but it too is noticing the crunch, with regular corporate customers working from home.

Commercial and events manager Olivia Carter said they were operating at half capacity under the red framework rules all the while keeping 85 people employed.

If the restaurant had multiple staff isolating, she worries what happens next.

"I feel like they don't really listen to what we need. There's just that worry now as well of if we have to close what does that look like for paying all of those employees?"

This month Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick and more than 60 business owners called on the government to throw the businesses a lifeline, asking for a range of measures including reviving the wage subsidy or other targeted support and extending IRD interest-free and government-backed loan schemes.

Swarbrick said support could not come soon enough.

"For some, they've had their worst weekends that they've had in decades. We're talking about the institutions that people are going to want to walk back out into as soon as we're through the other side of this pandemic, that simply might not exist if they aren't given the lifeline to get through the next few months."

There is something those working from home can do to help.

Carter said some people are driving to the cafe or restaurant they frequented near their workplace to buy coffee or lunch.

"Anytime somebody enters a hospitality business, people they do that happy dance and we're really really thankful and your support means everything."